The Devil's Advocate

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First, and possibly the best, in a line of the pre-Andrew Greeley popularizations of the Catholic Faith, The Devil's Advocate reveals the affliction that pervades may of them. Morris West, the author, studied for the priesthood and had some fairly pronounced disagreements with Catholic teaching that surface in odd spots here and there in the novel. These were neither so pervasive nor so dramatic as to make the novel unreadable, but they were pronounced and often caused be to set the book aside for a time until I could return and get to the real "meat" of the story. Most of the objectionable material occurs in the first half of the book, and most people reading quickly won't even notice it, so it shouldn't detract from the very fine second half of the novel.

The story in outline is: A priest dying of stomach cancer is given the assignment of going to a remote Italian village to investigate the qualities of a person whose cause has been proposed to the Vatican. He resists but finally agrees to do so. The majority of the novel is the exploration of who the priest's life intersects with and is transformed by the life of the Giacomo Nerone, the person whose cause was proposed.

There are any number of implausible elements in the story, including the about face the priest makes upon visiting the orange orchard of the Archbishop who asked for the Devil's Advocate to come. Setting aside the melodramatic as a convention of the time, there are other more serious problems.

What I found most disturbing was the almost leering prurience with which West examined the life of the homosexual painter whose dilemma precipitates some of the action of the second half of the novel. This became, unfortunately, the mainstay of most "popular" Catholic novels. What book by Greeley can you pick up that doesn't have a lurid cover and an almost equally lurid story inside. West needed to make the case of his painter Nicholas Black, suitable to frame Black's eventually denouement, but, in my opinion, he went way overboard in the discussion.

Also bothersome were some simple word misusages. Twice he describes the Contessa as "bridling pleasantly." Bridling is confined to negative emotion--usually anger. It simply isn't possible to bridle with pleasure, although it is possible to take pleasure in your bridling.

Finally, the constant little jabs at this, that, or the other aspect of the Chruch and its teachings that West didn't particularly care for became wearisome and worrisome. I wondered if, by the time I got to the end, the Church was going to canonize some profligate philanderer. In point of fact, as we come to know Giacomo, this recedes rapidly into a non-issue.

However the resolution of Nicholas Black's story, and several other melodramatic elements simply didn't ring true in the way of, say, Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. The story was written for best-sellerdom and probably made it. Black's "hath not a Jew eyes" speech was frankly over-written and over-wrought.

All of which made me a little disappointed (initially) that this was selected by Loyola for inclusion in their series. The quality of the writing, the story, and the picture of the Catholic faith is not up to the quality presented in other entries in the series. However, one thought that occurred to me is that the point of inclusion is that there really is a very good story in overall amongst the mandatory best-seller debris, and that this book would serve as encouragement to other young Catholic writers that the world can be engaged and taught about the faith in a way that will appeal and encourage those who would never touch a book by Graham Greene. It is strong evidence that we need not and should not confine ourselves to a ghetto of "Catholic fiction" in order to preserve the integrity of our work--that the best work and the most lasting work can and should appeal to a wider audience than those already converted and that truths of the faith can be taught and conveyed even to the most resistant if formulated in a way that goes down smoothly. My conclusions, ultimately, was that this is a very fitting contribution to the Loyola series, while not being one of the better works included in the line-up. That is, that the purpose it serves is extremely valuable--encouragement and nurturing those whose gifts run in this way cannot be overvalued.

I cannot speculate on how many might have become more friendly to or more interested in the Catholic faith as a result of this work. Nor can I guess how many Catholics found something worthy to read in this novel.

While I have some strong reservations about the overall quality, I do recommend the book as a light, swift read--not likely to repay lingering study or examination, but certainly an entertainment that does no harm and much good. While it took me a monumental effort and Julie D's enthusiastic recommendation to finally get through it, I will freely admit that it was ultimately worthwhile. The book will not linger in memory, but neither will it render any harm. I will come back time and time again to the agonized priests of Greene and Endo, in memory and in fact; but I don't think I'll be visiting Msgr. Meredith in the future. Nevertheless, a good beach book for those of us still visiting the beaches. (Me, me, me, me!!!)

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Obviously I liked it better than you did:

Of course, the priest in The Power and the Glory was a bigger achievement than Blaise Meredith, and I still go back to reread that book, and weep every time, I still think that West had *something*. No, maybe not as big a *something* as Greene, but Greene can be awfully off-putting to many people.

Re: "bridling pleasantly" - reminds me a bit of how West Pointers are said "never to be happy unless they're complaining".



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 28, 2006 9:19 AM.

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